Friday, May 16, 2008

Penguin Shakespeare

There are various, nay, multitudinous, editions of the writings of William Shakespeare available for purchase.

As part of my Complete Works tour, I intend to dip into some of the editions I know, some of the ones I don't know, and some I will not want to know ever again. Each edition I look at will be read with regard to a particular play - I'll have watched the play beforehand, most likely in the BBC production. I'll also have read through the The Oxford Shakespeare's The Complete Works (Compact Edition).

I start with a firm favourite of mine - The Penguin Shakespeare.

The Two


of Verona

This is an attractive little book - small enough to slip into a pocket and carry off to read somewhere, like a park bench or beside the local river (two of my usual habitations). It is paperback, so won't last a lifetime of scholarly mutilation - but that's not what it's designed for - it is certainly sturdy enough to take multiple readings. And it has great illustrations on the cover. You'll find snuggling in the lower, right-hand corner on the back, an endorsement by the National Theatre - that's the British National Theatre, quite a prestigious body in its own sweet way.

There are also a couple of directional quotes on the cover - one on the front, one on the back. This is typical of the whole edition. On this front cover there is a quote from RALPH WALDO EMERSON (capitalisation courtesy of Penguin) pointing in the direction of lovers outloved and sages out saged; the back quote, from the play, puts us firmly in sight of Silvia, one of the characters.

Once inside we meet the 'Senate' - Founding Editor, General Editor, Supervising Editors - all very nice, all very important and all not worth stopping at - so, into contents, where we discover the Penguin Format.

A General Introduction (courtesy of Stanley Wells); The Chronology (their definite article) of Shakespeare's Works; Introduction; Play in Performance; and Further Reading.

Then we get the actual play text - Title, Characters, Play (split into Acts with scenes, and with line numbers - page number, play title and Act,scene numbers appear at the top of each page).

After the text there is An Account of the Text; then a Commentary - complete with notes and explanations split by Act/scene and linked clearly to line numbers.

That's the standard format of the whole series - and relatively successful it is too.

Let's look in a little more detail at some of the features: The General Introduction for starters:

All books in the edition carry the General Introduction written by Stanley Wells, General Editor. It starts with the statement that,
Every play by Shakespeare is unique.
... which is hard to disagree with, on a certain level.
It does however betray an attitude - an attitude increasingly seen as dated with regard to the 'value' to be found in Shakespeare. It values uniqueness in itself, which, with a little bit of thought, can be seen as not necessarily valuable, or good, or honourable. It also seeks to emphasise a distinctiveness from others as opposed to 'collectiveness' with others ... which is creepingly out of fashion - Shakespeare is increasingly seen as a collaborator, as a Theatre Professional (with all the interconnectivity that implies), as a part of a group.

The introduction goes on to discuss what is known of Shakespeare's life - with a degree of unavoidable supposition - to indicate some of the standard views of Shakespeare's greatness (such as the emotional range and depth of his characters) and to briefly outline the importance of Shakespeare to latter developments in theatre and language history.

I was struck by a certain sketchiness in this, as compared to Wells's excellent introduction to the Compact Oxford. Mind you, available space must certainly have had its effect - and it is not a bad introduction.

Next is the Chronology - based on the early Oxford Edition, and not the 'standard' one adopted by many other editors. It is a chronology which puts this play, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, as the first play in the canon, and upsets the apple cart in a number of other instances. There is no justification for the ordering here - but you are referred to the William Shakespeare: A Textual Companion in which it originates.

We then move on to the Introduction to the play itself.

(To be continued)

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Craig said...

Don't think I even own a Penguin edition; perhaps I'll try to pick one up next time I need a new copy of a play. For me, Signet Classics is still the standard. That Oxford Complete works, though, I keep away from. It's a minefield without a map. No textual notes (no _footnotes_, for Pete's sake, and I still need them from time to time) and some very, um, _idiosyncratic_ textual choices. Like silent interpolations from Wilkins' novel into _Pericles_, or Middleton's _Witch_ into _Macbeth_. It's more of a manifesto than a reference.

Alan K.Farrar said...

I suspect the Penguin is a British thing (Signet is owned by Penguin by the way).